Military Intelligence and You: An Interview with Dale Kutzera
by Doug Cunningham
Dale Kutzera on set.
Given that Dale Kutzera is a self-proclaimed admirer of classical Hollywood, one should not be surprised to learn that his feature-film debut, Military Intelligence and You!, mixes a wartime satire with actual clips from 1940s war films featuring the likes of Alan Ladd, Ronald Reagan, and William Holden. The surprise is that the clips don’t come from Hollywood films. Instead, Kutzera has unearthed training films produced by the U.S. Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU), a World War II military organization that recruited hundreds of talented studio artists, including actors, directors, and writers, and put them in uniform for the war effort. Highly regarded for its innovative and often dramatized methods of teaching sometimes very dry material (interested in learning how to operate an SCR-522 VHF airborne radio set?), the FMPU produced more than 300 training, orientation, and documentary films between 1942 and 1945, most famously, perhaps, then-Major William Wyler’s Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress (1944).
To tell the story of Major Nick Reed (Patrick Muldoon) and Lieutenant Monica Tasty (Elizabeth Bennett) trying to pinpoint a secret enemy airfield, Kutzera repurposes (to use Rick Prelinger’s term) eight training films, six of them made by the FMPU: Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter (1943), featuring Ronald Reagan as a hotshot pilot with troubles discerning between friendly and enemy aircraft; Photographic Intelligence for Bombardment Aviation (1943), in which intelligence officer Alan Ladd uses aerial reconnaissance photos to find a Nazi submarine testing basin; Target for Today (1944), a bombing mission “procedural” directed by then-Major William Keighly; Ditch and Live (1944), boasting Arthur Kennedy as a bomber pilot drilling his crew on bailing out of a ditched aircraft; Resisting Enemy Interrogation (1944), wherein downed American bomber crew members Arthur Kennedy and James Seay try to keep tightlipped while prisoners during interrogation by Nazi officers Kent Smith and Carl Esmond; and Reconnaissance Pilot (1945), in which William Holden overcomes personal struggles to achieve a crucial success while photographing enemy territory. For good measure, Kutzera also includes one film produced by the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps for its “Fighting Man” series, Baptism of Fire (1943); here, a steady Elisha Cook, Jr. counsels an infantry buddy on how to accept and even move beyond a natural fear of combat.
Kutzera integrates the classics and the modern with style, humor, and, well… intelligence. Particularly interesting is the way in which the juxtaposition of these materials serves his larger themes about war and patriotism. Kutzera also demonstrates the extent to which public-domain films offer new opportunities for cinematic creativity and metatextual commentary, especially during this age of ever-advancing personal video technologies and practices.—Doug Cunningham
Cineaste: Why did you decide to use these particular FMPU films in Military Intelligence and You!?
Dale Kutzera: I wanted the films I chose to be dramatized. Also, I was aware of the fact that there would be a novelty associated with having William Holden and Alan Ladd—known people—in these films. Having said that, there were some other films I would like to have used; for instance, more films with Ronald Reagan. He was in a couple of other [FMPU] films, and these could have featured him more prominently, but they didn’t fit the story I was able to create.
Cineaste: And yet, when we do see Reagan in the clip from Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter, some interesting intertextuality is taking place. It’s a very ironic yet resonant moment.
Kutzera: Well, I certainly think of Reagan as being one of the golden boys of the last century. What an incredibly Horatio Alger career that guy had—from farm boy to radio announcer to Hollywood actor to politician. He is America for a lot of people, and certainly, I wanted to use him. I thought there was some interesting commentary. On the one hand, we’re making some “leftie” statements, but on the other hand, he represented a lot of the things that are great and continue to be great about America. Having him kind of come to the rescue, as the cavalry riding over the hill, I thought was kind of a funny notion—not just for the sake of the story, but also because of its comment on who he was, what he was. I even put a line in there, “Thanks, Dutch!”
Cineaste: What was the reaction to Reagan?
Kutzera: When I was in the back of the theater, I’d kind of watch the audience. Half the audience would lean in, the other half of the audience would say, “That’s Reagan!” It always gets a nice little reaction when they see Ronnie up there, particularly the shot after he shoots the enemy plane down, there’s a wonderful little dolly-in shot of Reagan in the cockpit, and he flashes that Reagan smile, and it’s just terrific, that kind of cockeyed Reagan smile of his. It’s a beautiful little push in, very classic, reminiscent of the push in on John Wayne in Stagecoach, one of those great movie shots that was fun to include.
Cineaste: We’re reminded of just how charming the young Reagan could be.
Kutzera: Oh, my God, he’s very charming, he’s an amazingly charming actor. I remember reading somewhere, or maybe it was in a documentary, that if they could have, the FMPU would have put Ronald Reagan in a whole bunch of stuff because he was obviously a completely competent actor. Yet, they didn’t want to. They didn’t want to for his sake, because then he would just be in every film, and they didn’t want to for their own sake, because they wanted to spread their wealth around.
Cineaste: I suppose the FMPU didn’t want their audiences constantly distracted by name actors on screen, but we see other actors, like Arthur Kennedy, Kent Smith, and James Seay, frequently. On a different note, why not more Signal Corps films, like Baptism of Fire?
Kutzera: Well, maybe you’ve tipped me off to a whole bunch of films I never knew existed. I went back [to the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland] and watched a lot of films, and I kind of went through each record group. And I would look for titles—literally, I would be going [down names listed in] binders. There is no real catalog of all these films. So, I would go through these binders, and I would look to see which titles jumped out at me as being, “Oh, that sounds like a dramatized film.” Literally, that’s how I did it. I didn’t have any other guideposts, and I certainly didn't have the time to pop each [film] into the [viewing ] machine and watch a bit of it. Some [titles] would say, Learning How to Swim; well, that’s probably not a dramatized film. And then some would say, Baptism of Fire. That sounds interesting—I think I’ll go watch it. I’m sure that had I had two weeks at the National Archives instead of one, maybe I would have found a whole different group of films that I could have cut and pasted into a different sort of movie. But [Baptism of Fire] was the one [Signal Corps film] that jumped out at me… it’s a dramatized film, it has action footage in it, which is great. I grabbed that one.
Cineaste: How do you feel that the FMPU films you used serve the purpose of your film as a whole?
Kutzera: The whole film has kind of a self-reflexive concept. It was making a kind of self-commentary, if you will, on where America’s at right now. Let me put it this way: The lead up to the war in Iraq, I thought, was a rather crass, rather manipulative endeavor by the Bush Administration to sell a war that probably didn’t need to be fought. I think there was something kind of interesting to me, and relevant, about using this old, government footage and manipulating it, in a way, and sending it out as kind of an alternate view. The fact that it was from World War II, and it was made by the U.S. government, kind of fuels the higher commentary of the piece. We’re doing basically a fake piece of propaganda that’s kind of the antidote to other propaganda that we’ve been subjected to. As a writer, I really like things that kind of loop back on themselves, I like things that have a lot of interesting commentary… the very use of the thing kind of stands for something. The use of [FMPU member] Ronald Reagan in a shot at the end means something more than just a fighter pilot coming in to save the day. I think that using this footage meant something beyond just the footage itself.
Cineaste: Would you say your film is nostalgic about the idealism we associate with World War II?
Kutzera: [During] that lead up to the war in Iraq, there was a lot of “rah-rah” patriotism, a lot of propaganda. Even in the media, there was a lot of drumbeat towards war and a lot of references back to World War II and to what was going on in the country [in the 1940s]. And yet, [in 2002-2003] there was a big difference, I always thought—like renaming French fries “freedom fries,” and things like this. There’s a lot of patriotism, that is, obviously, well founded, and yet it seemed that they were borrowing from the World War II playbook of what the country should be during wartime.
Cineaste: You’ve kind of done the cinematic equivalent of the remixings we’ve seen of World War II propaganda posters.
Kutzera: At the same time I was doing this film, Bill Maher came out with a book, a really great book, called When You Ride Alone, You Ride with bin Laden, and it was based on World War II posters designed to encourage people to save gas and carpool—“When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler.” And Maher went through and picked out twenty or thirty famous World War II posters—all of which you can find at the National Archives—to satirize. I liked that because it was the exact same thing I was trying to do, which was to look at where America was at in 2003 through the eyes of America in 1941 and 1942. I’m well aware of many of the problems of America in the ’30s and ’40s—there [was] racism and there [were] some very strong deficiencies going on in the country at that time. Despite all those things, it was a remarkably unified nation that, to a great degree—perhaps more than any other time in our history—was brought together for a shared purpose and a shared sense of self-sacrifice. And you don’t see that today. I think that’s a shame. I think that everyone does want to experience that again, so there is a bit of nostalgia, a bit of wistfulness for an America we didn’t know. Maybe we’re overexaggerating it because we weren’t there. An America that maybe we’d like to have known.
Cineaste: What was your process for acquiring these FMPU archival materials?
Kutzera: The National Archives has a couple of approved vendor labs that they will release materials to, and those vendor labs can make copies. When I first started my research, those vendor labs were just doing film-to-film copies, what they call a wet-gate print, and it was very expensive to have all these reels transferred film to film. Fortunately, by the time we actually got around to making the film, to ordering the footage, one of the labs—Bono Labs, which is where I went—had installed a high-def digital transfer, so they were able to basically transfer all the 35mm in high def to D1 tape. And then from the D1 tapes I got in the mail, I had them downconverted to standard definition. And then they were loaded up onto a hard drive so that my editor could cut them in.
Cineaste: And the result is a film that, formally, has a lot of similarities to Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.
Kutzera: I got a big kick out of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. I remember reading about Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid before it was going to come out, and I thought, “Oh, this is going to be great!” I was somewhat disappointed that they actually didn’t do more in terms of blending the footage, in actually putting Steve Martin into the scene through green screen or through special effects. It was mostly straight cuts. He was cut into a picture through straight cuts. It’s a great, funny film, and I certainly have a great love of film noir, but I knew that we were trying to do things a little bit differently. A couple of things that Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid did point out to me was, first, the critical need to match film grains and film stock. In Dead Men, there are still some jumps between the graininess or the contrast of the old footage and the grain and contrast of the new footage with Steve Martin. I’m sure the director of photography on that film had a really tough time trying to match all these different film stocks that were used by all these different films from the ’40s and I think probably the ’50s. And of course, they were doing all of this stuff back then without the benefit of digital manipulation. They were just doing it by picking film stocks and, I’m sure, by doing these different lab techniques to add grain or contrast.
The other thing Dead Men pointed out to me was that you need to get the sound as close as possible. In both cases, really, it’s a situation where you have to try and upgrade the old footage as much as possible, and clean up old footage, removing dirt and scratches, and improve the sound fidelity of the old footage. And of course, you have to “junk up” the new footage with more grain, more contrast, more dirt and scratches, which is all possible in digital very easily now. And then also, working to blend the quality of the new sound with the old sound. A lot of it was paying attention to the transitions from an old scene to a new scene. But it also served scenes in the old footage where we could add some element of sound, some kind of sound bed that we could then put to these surround-sound speakers. I wanted this because I knew the film was going to be black and white, so I wanted it at least to sound good. I think that if people would have gone into the theater and heard mono sound, a mono film, it would have been kind of a turn off. Esthetically speaking, people are really accustomed to sitting in a theater now and hearing sound coming at them from the sides as well as from the screen. Wherever we could, we tried to add in a little bit of sound to come from the sides. In the Resisting Enemy Interrogation footage, we added a little bit of a Viennese waltz, as though the German officer has the radio on. In a lot of the battle scenes, we took out the old soundtrack, just canned it entirely, and redesigned a new battle sound. Same thing with the air dogfight sequences taken from Target for Today, Reconnaissance Pilot, and Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter. The sound was done by Kenny Klimak.
Cineaste: I really appreciated the way your lighting favors Patrick Muldoon in such a way that he really seems to be lit like the actors we see in the FMPU films—William Holden, Alan Ladd, etc.
Kutzera:[Laughs] Well, I think Mark Perry, the cinematographer, did a terrific job. He loved the idea of shooting something in black and white, and he loved the idea of emulating a very classic Hollywood lighting scheme. I think that all the way along, he was able to do that. If you look at the film again, look at [the character of] Monica Tasty. She’s always lit a little bit brighter than everyone else around her because Mark always put a little bit of beauty light on her. Little stuff like that really was terrific fun, and again, there are so many levels you’ve got to go to make a film. You want to make it work entertainment-wise, but with me, one of the levels was that I just wanted to have kind of a fun time making it. I wanted to scratch the itch of my obsession with classic Hollywood black-and-white films. That was certainly one of the motivations for doing the film.
Cineaste: How do you envision the future of this “mash-up” type of filmmaking?
Kutzera: I think about it a lot. You’ve mentioned Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. In some ways, I do think my film is a little bit different from that film in that it’s not so much trying to spoof these old films so much as it is trying to repurpose them as old films for something relevant today. It’s a subtle distinction, but I think that it’s a valid distinction. I think of it more and more as the equivalent of early rap artists taking samples from other songs and messing with them, mixing them up. Many other facets of the movie business are changing now, just as many facets of the music business changed ten, fifteen years ago, because of digital technology. I think that we’re going to see a lot more of this, I think there’s going to be a lot more sampling of old movies and repurposing of these old movies. I love it. I think it’s a whole new area, because literally one person could sit down at their computer and mash up a bunch of old footage into something interesting. And you suddenly are no longer dividing up the different jobs of filmmaking, you’re just filmmaking. It’s not writing, directing, acting, producing, it’s just filmmaking. And you’re sitting down at a computer, probably like a lot of rap artists and musicians sit down at a synthesizer and are creating stuff that used to take a whole crew, that used to take a whole orchestra or whole band to make a record. Now it just takes a person with software. The same thing is happening with filmmaking.
Cineaste: Intellectual property law would have to catch up with creativity.
Kutzera: Well, it’s obviously a tricky thing. In the early days of rap music, they were sampling things and didn’t really think too much about it until they started getting in trouble, and then they started to have, you know, lawyers get involved, and contracts were written up, and people were paid and stuff like that. I think it would be very interesting to see that happen in the film business, as well. I think it would be very interesting for a studio to let a filmmaker into the archives and say, “Come up with some stuff. What would you do with some of this if we give you free run of our archives for a bit?” Obviously, there are a lot of different legal hurdles to jump over. One of the interesting side notes of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is that it set a precedent for repurposing old film clips. Some felt the actors in those old clips should have been paid, but Dead Men established that such residuals aren't required for films that old. The producers, however, smoothed over some sore feelings by making a contribution to the Academy's Motion Picture Retirement Home. I did some more research and found that it did come down to a big strike that the Screen Actors Guild had, I think it was in 1960. The upshot of that was that after that year, after 1960, you do have to at least make the effort to pay the estates, the writer, the director of these scenes that you might use. In fact, I was working on a TV show once, and we used a clip from The Twilight Zone and had to track down the actors, the writer, the producer, the director, or at least try to make payments in their names to their various guilds.
Cineaste: Lucasfilm offers its fans the opportunity to “mash up” clips from the Star Wars films on its Web site.
Kutzera: I think that Lucas saw that a lot of that stuff was going on and instituted it on his Web site. I think another level of this whole fan editing phenomenon is just the recutting of films. I’ve certainly been a fan of recutting films, myself. It’s interesting to look at personalizing a film in some weird way. I’m surprised that the studios have not picked up on that more. I’m surprised that studios have not come up with “condensed” films. There’s enough fat in the bones of any film that you can cut it down. I think what you’re going to see is a lot more of that. On one level, people will just be taking films and doing what they want to with them, whether it’s cutting the naughty bits out, making a cleaner version. Some people might not want the romance scenes in there, they want just the action. They’d be personalizing their own cinema. That’s an interesting thing that I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of in the future.
Cineaste: What lessons as a filmmaker do you take away from the FMPU films?
Kutzera: One thing I take away is just the speed and directness of a lot of these films. A lot of them were short, they were twenty-minute films, and they were very direct. In screenwriting classes, we’re always taught to be subtle, to approach things from an oblique angle, and to not konk people over the head. There’s a phrase in screenwriting called “on the nose.” You don’t want to be “on the nose” with your dialog and have people say what they mean. And yet, with the FMPU, they were, by and large, very direct. They would, obviously, for very good reasons, say what they meant. They would make points very clearly. They used narrators a lot, and that certainly is an easy device. The FMPU used a lot of tricks. They used narrators, they used animation, they used people talking directly to the camera, they used a lot things that were very direct, and I kind of respect them for it.
Cineaste: What’s next for you?
Kutzera: I’m writing a script with a good friend, David Mickel. It’s a romantic comedy, and we’ve sold that to Fox. Meanwhile, Military Intelligence and You! is out on DVD, and it will be available throughwww.militaryintelligenceandyou.com. And I’m certainly hoping to continue to mess around with old footage. I think it’s kind of a fun hobby for me. I’ve got a couple ideas that I’m hoping to dive into that might even be, in some ways, more interesting and more handmade than Military Intelligence was. It’s a brave, new world out there.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.
Doug Cunningham is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is writing his dissertation on representations of masculinity in the films of the First Motion Picture Unit.